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It’s not about presents or the number of Chanukkah songs there are compared with Christmas songs, or how a humble nine-branched candelabra can compete with a freshly pine-scented ornament adorned Christmas tree.
Chanukkah, the holiday that celebrates history’s first victory for religious freedom, is about not giving into tyranny. In any generation.
Here is a blog post on the furthest place I’ve traveled. The plane ride is noisy and crowded, but I’ve traveled there four times and I’ll do it again as soon as time and money permits. With the earliest chanukkah ever recorded in just two weeks, I thought this would be an appropriate post for this challenge:
I’ve spent all of my chanukkahs in America. As a Jewish kid, yes, the omnipotence of Christmas can test anyone’s Jewish identity and make even those with the strongest feel a bit left out. You can totally relate to Adam Sandler‘s song. You are that only kid on the block without a Christmas tree.
But, still, come December, you can’t help but feel a bit marginalized.
Except in Israel. Because there’s a whole country that is Jewish, just like you and me……
Chanukkah in Israel is the little things, like peeking into a Jerusalem apartment window to watch a mother lift her baby to see the chanukkah candles.
Chanukkah is big, as every corner on every street is decorated with Chanukkiot. No, not menorahs. A menorah is the seven-branched candelabra, and though it is the symbol of Israel, the chanukkia, the nine-branched candelabra, is for chanukkah:
Chanukkah in Israel is walking through the Western Wall Tunnels where Judah Maccabee and his army used to reclaim Jerusalem and the Temple from the Assyrian Greeks in 165 B.C.E.
Chanukkah in Israel is lighting the chanukkiah in the hotel lobbies amidst the glow of so many others:
Chanukkah in Israel is digging in a cave thought to be used by the Maccabees, where coins have been found with an insignia of Assyrian King Antiochus on them.
Most of all, Chanukkah is filled with smiling kids:
“Are you doing anything special this Hanukkah?”
I guess Steve the check-out cashier figured out I was Jewish. After all, from my grocery cart, I unloaded a bag of potatoes, onions, some Chanukkah napkins, blue and white M&Ms and a box of beeswax candles.
“Not much,” I replied. “Just going to my son’s band concert tonight, and then down to New York City for a family occasion.” I didn’t want to say it was for a Bat Mitzvah. That’s just too complicated if you don’t know what a Bat Mitzvah is.
“Ooooh, New York City! That’s where they seriously get into Chanukkah! I mean, the big menorah displays, and the food — the matzah ball soup! Even in the diners, they make French toast out of challah down in New York City,” he went on.
Now, you don’t have to be Jewish to love matzah ball soup or challah French toast. And, I am pretty sure, you can get challah French toast up here in Rochester.
But the sentimentality in his voice towards matzah ball soup, the way he so dreamily spoke of the menorahs as he scanned my clementines and sweet Mayan onions, I had to ask:
“Um, are you Jewish?”
Now, this is not a question I would ask a complete stranger. But around this time of year, when the enormity of Christmas seeps into every crevice of the American landscape, Jews have this desire to connect to one other, to stick together. Judaism as a topic of conversation is a subject that would be avoided by the most disenfranchised, unaffiliated Jew for most of the year. But talking about one’s Jewish identity in the face of Christmastime, is, like a plate of freshly fried potato latkes, on the table and up for grabs.
At any other time of year, a suburban housewife and a 20something college kid working in a grocery store wouldn’t openly discuss being Jewish. But that night, right before the lighting of the first Chanukkah candle, amidst the Christmas Muzak playing and the Christmas tree displays twinkling, it felt like the right time.
As he carefully bagged my groceries with the expertise only possessed by a Wegmans employee, Steven continued to tell me his plans for the Festival of Lights.
“Yeah, there’s this Chanukkah celebration thing going on at the University of Rochester tonight. From – you know – Hillel? I think I might check it out. I haven’t gone to many Hillel events, but I think I should check it out.”
“Good for you!” I replied. This did my heart good. I told him that I worked for the Hillel – the organization that supports Jewish life on college campuses around the world – a number of years back. With so many negative statistics out there pointing out the demise of Jewish practice among today’s young American Jews, Steven telling me of his plans to do something Jewish, to be with other Jews that night, just made me feel all warm inside.
Chanukkah is such a small holiday in importance on the Jewish calendar. But it celebrates something so big – the world’s first fight for religious freedom. It was the first time a people – though meek and small – said NO to an occupying power. Judah Maccabee and his brothers were the first who had the chutzpah — the balls, if you will — to say, NO! We will not stop being Jewish. We will not stop teaching our children how to be Jewish. You can put up statues of your idols, you can outlaw Jewish practice, you can threaten us, but we will survive.
And survive we did, and we have, in spite of history. And in spite of the dreary outlook for the American Jewish landscape, Steven, the college kid who worked at Wegmans, was going to go out of his way to celebrate Chanukkah, to celebrate being Jewish.
Happy Chanukkah to Steven and to all who celebrate freedom.